Citizen scientists point to urban carnivore hotspots

Citizen scientists using a mobile app may help managers better understand where urban carnivores, like coyotes and red foxes, interact more with people.

In a study published in the journal of Landscape and Urban Planning, researchers in Madison, Wisconsin compared telemetry data from radio-collared coyotes (Canis latrans) and red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) with citizen scientist data from iNaturalist in order to determine if they were similar. The mobile app allows users to take photos of wildlife and note the location.

“We were interested to use citizen science data to track the distribution of the animals,” said Max Allen, an assistant research professor at the University of Illinois and the senior author on the study. “There tends to be a lot of concern with negative interactions with people being threatened or attacked by coyotes. We were interested if management agencies could take iNaturalist data and use it to proactively manage urban carnivores in general.”

Allen and his colleagues split their study into a grid with areas the size of neighborhoods, plotted telemetry and iNaturalist locations for both species and figured out how they matched up.

They took note of where the species had both telemetry and iNaturalist reports, where they had neither and where they had one but not the other.

The researchers determined red foxes were more likely to occur in neighborhoods and mixed development areas. Coyotes, on the other hand — likely in their initial colonization — were more likely to show up in bigger parks and forests.

But they found a discrepancy between telemetry data and iNaturalist reports. While collars revealed coyotes using a large arboretum, iNaturalist data showed coyotes in more developed areas where they interacted with people. The team saw a similar trend with red foxes, with citizen scientists noting them using areas closer to people.

The iNaturalist users didn’t accurately show the distribution of the urban canids, Allen said, but their data still told an important story.

“This can be very helpful with management,” he said, “not for ecological studies, but it’s exactly what managers would want to know about where the urban canids are interacting with people and can be used to manage potential conflicts.”


Header Image: Citizen science data showed coyotes in more developed areas where they interacted with humans. ©Renee Grayson